Since I started hanging out with writers, I’ve discovered that I don’t read the Right Sort of Books. Even though I read all the time, and don’t spend too much time in the genre ghettos, I never seem to have read the authors that everyone is buzzing about, or the ones that get included in MFA curricula, or the ones that authors cite as influences in interviews, or any of the books in those online “how well-read are you” quizzes. Sometimes I’m left wondering, “Well, what have I read?”
Once I took an online quiz about modern Japanese authors, and got a whopping six out of ten – a record for me in online book quizzes. I mentioned it to another writer friend, “I guess what I have been reading is modern Japanese fiction,” I said with some relief (after all, what an impressive niche, right?)
“Ooh,” she responded excitedly, “What did you think about the new Ishiguro?”
“I haven’t read it.”
Which is all a long-winded introduction to the fact that I’m trying to read more of the Right Sort of Books lately. Like Emma Woodhouse, I haven’t gotten very far with my literary self-improvement project. I referenced the title of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in a blog post, but I didn’t actually pick it up until now.
And then I didn’t put it down until I finished it. If this is where the literary establishment is headed, sign me up. I know I’m behind the curve and online literary magazines are already putting caveats in their pitch guidelines to the effect, “referencing The Big Lebowski and David Foster Wallace in the same piece does not make you special,” but to me, Oscar Wao was a belated revelation.
It was the first thing I’d ever read that really nailed the high/low aesthetic and proved the chestnut about your whole authentic self being the only thing you really have to sell. It was proof that pop culture references don’t disqualify a book from literary timelessness.
Okay, that’s not true. A Wrinkle in Time was basically the same thing, and even more overt. Go ahead and be the wonderful dork that you are, Meg. Halldor Laxness used the obscure reference like Vikings used kennings and both the modern and ancient obscurities continue to delight long after the meaning is lost. Highlight the incongruous things about you and you’ve got your story. Dominican nerd = instant classic. Speak friend and enter into a completely unfamiliar culture where you suddenly recognize yourself.
Yes, I loved the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, referential from the title to its ouroboros last line. It was not only a delight to read, but a siren call to freedom. I will never again try to write something (except on assignment and even then not as much as I used to) with a guard against voice. If an ‘80s movie is what I think of when I write an epic fantasy scene, it’s going in. If a martial arts principal is the way I understand a legal concept, that’s how I’ll explain it. And if I need to reference Snorri Sturluson in a romance, I will do it. Thanks to Oscar Wao, I’ll write any damn thing I want.
But I might start reading more of the Right Sort of Books.